It’s black with rounded edges, has a curved keypad with angular accents (with highlights in white and red) and a directional track pad below the centre of the screen. Eight months ago, that would have described only one phone—a BlackBerry Bold 9650 from smartphone makers Research In Motion (RIM). Today, it describes six—the Zen Mobile Z77, G-Fone 571, Fly B430 DS, Airfone AQ9, Aroma Q2 and H20 V-68. These aren’t the dubious “ePhone” and “Blackbarry” knockoffs the grey market peddles, but phones available on retail shelves and at online stores at prices less than Rs5,000. “Over the last year, the mobile handsets market has gotten more crowded and fragmented with the rise of ‘copycat’ models that have (the) looks and aesthetics resembling those of high-end smartphones,” says Naveen Mishra, lead analyst for mobile handsets research at IDC India. The copycats come from what IDC calls the “new vendors”, among them companies such as Micromax Informatics Ltd, Karbonn, Fly and Zen Mobiles. Of the 101 million handsets shipped in 2009, these new vendors now have a market share of 12.3%, higher than the individual share of Samsung (9.4%) or LG Electronics (6.4%).
But Mishra is quick to clarify that these companies are not just about the copycat models. “A lot of genuine innovation has come from this space, with features like dual-sim phones now being imitated by established companies like Nokia and Samsung,” he says. Delhi-based company Olive Telecom, endorsed by cricketer Kapil Dev, has a model called the FrvrOn powered by an AAA battery in addition to a normal rechargeable lithium-ion cell. Micromax Informatics’ X235 doubles as a universal remote. “These companies have portfolios that mix both these attempts at innovation and the cheap copycats, driven by demand for low-end devices that look like a BlackBerry or Nokia,” Mishra says.
BlackBerry makers RIM, the source of much of this design inspiration, seem unperturbed at attempts to copy their phones’ aesthetics. “You can copy the design and functions of a BlackBerry but not the software,” says Keith Pardy, chief marketing officer at RIM. “The software has been created after many years of research and development, and we have unique support systems that make it possible for you to secure your information on a BlackBerry. That is not possible in an imitation.” Many of the cheaper phones, however, do provide equivalent functionality—using freely available open-source applications such as browser Opera or social networking suite Snaptu.
Any claims of intellectual property rights (IPR) infringements, says Mishra, also fall into an uncertain grey zone. “It’s a very soft line. You add one dot somewhere, or a button somewhere else, and you’re safe,” he says. None of the big firms have reacted in any way to the copycats as the markets they serve are radically different. “Our phones are positioned different, catering to a separate group of consumers,” says Vikas Jain, business director at Micromax Informatics, who categorically denies any “inspiration” in the design of the company’s phones. “I can understand why people would think so,” he says. “I mean, how many ways can you play around with a basic bar phone’s design? You only have a few buttons to move around.”
The G-Fone 571 and Karbonn K10 ape different models in the BlackBerry Curve family. The K10 attempts to go one step further, featuring an impressive imitation of the BlackBerry user interface as well. The software, however, lags significantly, making most complicated tasks an exercise in frustration. Both feature a replica of the signature BlackBerry trackball, though in Karbonn’s case it’s merely a button. The G-Fone is sleek and light, though opening the back battery case is a task worthy of the Engineer Corps.
The Zen Z77 and Fly B430 manage a convincing rendition of the BlackBerry Bold. Neither features the smart track pad that makes navigation on the Bold a breeze, but the four-way directional centre button suffices. The Zen is the heavier of the two and sports a strange, granulated back cover. The BlackBerry may win on overall sleekness, but it can’t match the sheer loudness of the Zen and Fly speakers, nor the ultra-cheap price. The Zen and Fly come with a passable camera and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
This was a bit of a surprise. A phone from HTC’s past (when they made stuff other than sleek iPhone-esque smartphones) reappearing as the Micromax Q5, a dual-sim Qwerty phone with Opera Mini and a 2MP camera. The phone apparently has an “inbuilt Yamaha audio amplifier”. We’ll take their word for it.
Red centre button? Check. Red band around the circumference of the phone? Check. Music-centric features, including buttons on the side of the phone? Check and check. Nokia’s 5310 is an odd choice of inspiration, but its aesthetics seem to be in demand across multiple companies. The KKT23C is Lava Mobile’s “entry-level” CDMA phone, with the desired trifecta of entry-level features: long battery life, torch and FM. The Micromax X250 adds powerful speakers, an MP3 player and a VGA camera.
Blessy Augustine contributed to this story.